Largely because of American military assistance, the helicopter section of the VNAF was experiencing a critical pilot shortage in late 1962. Under the Military Assistance Program (MAP) a total of 48 helicopters (H-19 and H-34) were projected for the VNAF by 1 July 1964.
To accomplish the task of training VNAF personnel, the USAF either brought the Vietnamese to the CONUS or it sent Americans to Vietnam to train the Vietnamese in their own country. Superficially, it would seem more efficient to send a small number of American instructors to train a large number of Vietnamese students than to send those same students to the CONUS.
There were political advantages and one of the desiderata of training conducted in the CONUS was the exposure of foreign students to democratic ideals and the “American way of life”. By 1962 due to the deteriorating military situation the political and cultural advantages of CONUS training had to be sacrificed for the greater efficiency of “in-county” training.
On 8 September 1962, CINCPAC sent a message to HQ USAF requesting that “all feasible steps” be taken to alleviate the current pilot shortage of the VNAF. To expedite this training program, CINCPAC asked HQ USAF to get an ATC team “on the road without delay”.
An ATC survey team visited Vietnam from 23 September to 7 October 1962 to study the various possible ways of training VNAF helicopter pilots in that country.
They recommended an FTD be established in Vietnam to provide helicopter and mechanic training. They believed this was the only way to “eliminate the need for USAF Forces serving in any air combat counterinsurgency operations”.
The survey team recommended the FTD be “in Vietnam by 1 January 1963, with training starting 1 February 1963.
In November 1962, HQ USAF approved the team’s recommendations and directed ATC to deploy an FTD to Vietnam to conduct H-19 helicopter training for the VNAF.
FTD 917-S was organized on 3 December 1962 with an authorized strength of 12 officers and 47 airmen drawn from ATC resources. Most of the officers and airmen left the CONUS on 11 January 1963 and arrived in Vietnam the next day. The detachment became operational and began training on 11 February 1963.
Led by Col. Jimmy Hamill, instructors were taken from Stead and other ATC units to began VNAF helicopter pilot training in H-19B helicopters.
The training was conducted on 8 H-19B helicopters. Three were already available at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon, while the remaining five were in flyable storage at the VNAF Bien Hoa Depot.
With the success of the training and at the urgent request by the VNAF for expansion of the training program, CINCPAC requested and was approved to add 11 officers, 31 airmen, and 9 helicopters.
On 17 June 1963, ATC transferred responsibility for FTD 917-S from Sheppard to the 3635th Flying Training Group (Advanced) at Stead AFB Nevada. FTD 917-S was inactivated and FTD 917-H was designated and organized at Saigon to take its place. The reason for the change concerned the unit’s primary mission of pilot training; it was reassigned to a “compatible ATC flying training organization”.
After graduating its first class of helicopter pilots and while beginning to train its second class the FTD also undertook to train a class of helicopter mechanics. The first mechanics’ class began on 1 July 1963 with 30 Vietnamese students.
A major problem facing the FTD was the inadequacy of its logistical support. Once deployed to Vietnam the detachment found itself short of aerospace ground equipment, hand tools, and spare parts. This poor situation continued through 1963.
By February 1964, through controlled cannibalization, coupled with the improvement of the logistical support the supply problem was reduced to only one aircraft out of commission because of parts. (James O. Smith stated he recalls one particular day sixteen aircraft were in the air)
Although the detachment’s supply situation had improved early in 1964, it continued to have logistical difficulties. The detachment had only six aircraft in commission in early July 1964. An urgent action technical order required that the helicopters’ main rotor head pitch control rods be radiographed. Eighteen of the pitch change rods were not affected by the urgent action technical order.
This procedure was not available in Vietnam so the rods had to be shipped to Air America in Taipei, Formosa. The maintenance personnel met the challenge and kept the six remaining aircraft flying throughout this period.
On 16 June 1964 aircraft 53-4454 crashed on take off. (James O. Smith and Dick Kuenzli both have stated it was the result of engine failure)
Personnel rotation presented the detachment with another kind of problem. Sheppard AFB intended to rotate the original complement of detachment personnel in monthly increments beginning in November 1963 and continuing through April 1964, extending the tours of some of the airmen to as long as 15 months. The detachment commander protested the inequity of this program and urgently requested that a more equitable rotation plan be formulated that would provide a minimum period of disrupting concentrated training programs. By October 1963, the original cadre of officers and airmen was being replaced.
Beginning with class 64A training was accelerated in two ways. The training was extended from 5 to 6 days and the flying time per student was increased from 45 minutes to a full hour. These procedures eliminated several issues.
When 26 student pilots graduated on 18 July 1964 that brought the total to 95 pilots trained by the detachment. The detachment also trained 92 mechanics during its 19 months in Vietnam.
Its mission accomplished, the detachment prepared to go home. On 20 August 1964, HQ ATC inactivated FTD 917-H at Saigon.
The FTD under its earlier designation received the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for the period 12 January to 14 June 1964.
The 3638th Flying Training Squadron (Helicopter) at Stead received the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for the period of 1 March 1962 to 1 March 1963.
The United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam recommended the FTD for the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its performance throughout its period of deployment in the Republic of Vietnam.
Overall the detachment was cited as having contributed significantly to the operational capability of the Vietnamese Air Force.
Pictures courtesy of Dick Kuenzli